The return of the Internet

In 2003, Howard Dean scored big with the Web, while India took advantage of online communications to grab thousands of white-collar jobs from the West. The Net, it turns out, still matters.

Published December 24, 2003 8:30PM (EST)

Howard Dean's online machine

One year ago, Howard Dean was a little-known Northeastern governor with an angry stage presence and some firmly held ideas about the impending war in Iraq. To hear the experts tell it, he was too unknown, too Northeastern, too angry, and his ideas were too firmly held to propel him very far on the national stage. But Dean and his team knew about the Web. Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager, is a longtime fan of political blogs, and he saw that one of the best ways to get the political chattering classes chattering about Dean would be to get key political bloggers blogging about Dean.

Trippi cultivated relationships with these bloggers (some even joined the campaign to work on Dean's official blog,) and he radically democratized his organization, allowing the readers and writers of blogs to suggest campaigning ideas to the candidate. One of the ideas suggested by bloggers was Meetup, the Web-based tool to organize local gatherings. Trippi, in perhaps his best move of the campaign, embraced Meetup, encouraging Web-based supporters to sign up for the local gatherings to see what the candidate was all about. For many Dean fans, this first Meetup -- where supporters got to see videos of the candidate and, more important, to meet others just like themselves -- had all the fervency of a first hit of cocaine. After one meeting, the supporters knew they had to get more Dean; and the candidate suddenly had an unrivaled grassroots campaign working for his victory.

The rest of the story will surely go down in the annals of political history, even if Dean doesn't get to the White House. Dean's following on the Web propelled him to first place in the MoveOn primary in June. In July, he surprised experts by trouncing all of his rivals in the fundraising race, a victory made possible largely with money raised online. And now, of course, he stands as the Democratic front-runner.

It remains unclear whether Dean's online success was something of a fluke -- was it made possible by the particular appeal of the candidate and the particular political moment, or does it really foretell a new wave in politics? Nobody knows, either, how important Dean's Web machine will be in the general election (if he gets there). And what can an online campaign do about the digital divide? But this much is known: After what Howard Dean did on the Web, candidates are now taking the Web very seriously.

Electronic voting in the crosshairs

Electronic touch-screen voting machines seem like a fabulous idea. They're easy to use. They prevent voters from choosing too many (or too few) candidates. Ballots can be programmed in multiple languages, and the machines can accommodate blind people, who in the past always required the assistance of another person to cast their votes. The electronic machines also count ballots quickly and, according to their manufacturers, are completely secure from tampering. The only problem is, the machines don't produce any physical proof (a so-called paper trail) of an accurate election result. Because electronic voting machines record, store and count ballots in a computer, it's impossible to ensure that the results spit out by the machine match the collective will of the voters.

Computer scientists have long warned of this problem, but in 2003, a host of activists began to bring these concerns to the mainstream. David Dill, a computer scientist at Stanford, recruited thousands of his fellow computer experts to demand that election equipment vendors manufacture, and election officials require, electronic machines that produce a paper trail. Meanwhile, Bev Harris, a literary publicist who began investigating voting firms after the 2002 midterm election, found several questionable practices at Diebold, one of the leading voting equipment firms. In February, Harris discovered that the company had left its voting software available on a public FTP site -- and when computer scientists from Johns Hopkins and Rice University looked at the code in the summer, they declared it profoundly vulnerable to attack. (Diebold criticizes the study.) Harris has also found flaws in the vote-counting software that allow anyone with access to the machine to alter election results.

Fortunately, there's some sign that lawmakers are beginning to worry about paperless machines. The secretaries of state in California and Nevada recently announced that they will require all the machines in their states to produce a paper trail, and many members of Congress are pondering a national law requiring auditable systems.


Condolences to anyone trying to have a serious discussion via e-mail about erectile dysfunction this year: 2003 was the year that spam filters ruled the Net, becoming ubiquitous on corporate e-mail accounts and commercial Internet services alike. And while filters have cut down some of the hassle of dealing with the daily onslaught of crude solicitations, they also mean that a new reign of "false positives" has begun. E-mailers now struggle not only with spam itself, but with spam filters gone bad.

This year the sheer volume of spam became so unrelenting that even some Internet pioneers wondered if e-mail -- the killer app itself! -- can be saved. Will a federal spam law really help, or just prove another trivial hurdle for crafty rogue spammers to navigate?

Stay tuned: In the footsteps of the summer crackdown on telemarketing spam with the institution of the national do-not-call list, Bush signed the first federal anti-spam act into law in mid-December, which Congress had overwhelmingly approved. The law goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2004, but many technologists are skeptical that it will stem the flood of spam.

Time to learn Hindi or Mandarin?

As the U.S. economy finally shrugged off its recession, and even technology stock prices started to perk up, laid-off American computer programmers began to wonder if the jobs they'd lost during the bust were ever coming back. Two U.C. Berkeley researchers calculated that some 14 million white-collar office jobs in the United States are "vulnerable" to offshoring, outsourcing and near-shoring. This year, the outsourcing phenomenon moved well beyond the practice of multinational corporations body-shopping their customer-service call centers out to the lowest bidder. Today, cutting-edge technology start-ups are getting into the act as well, looking to find talent for a fraction of the cost in countries like India and China.

And while some U.S. geeks are counseling their techie brethren to unionize now, before it's too late, technology managers and venture capitalists are defending the practice as good for companies, the U.S. economy, the global economy, consumers and the world. Besides, they argue, it's inevitable. Time to upgrade your skills!

Hollwood's copyright craziness, and iTunes to the rescue

For years, the music industry has been threatening to sue individuals who trade copyrighted music over online peer-to-peer services, but it was still a stunning development, this summer, when the music cops finally made good on their threat. Early in the year, two legal developments set the stage for the individual suits -- one federal judge prohibited the industry from suing trading services for the copyright violations of their users, and another judge forced ISPs to turn over the identities of individuals suspected of using P2P programs. So in September, the Recording Industry Association of America, the main music business trade group, sued 261 people -- a group that included grandparents and school kids, all potentially liable for millions (or hundreds of millions) in damages. Since then, the RIAA has sued hundreds more. (The group also announced an "amnesty program" to grant a reprieve to traders who pledge never to go near a P2P network again. It's hard to find anyone who'll agree to RIAA's terms, though.)

Have the lawsuits slowed the illegal music trade? The expert consensus is that they seem to have had only a minimal effect: Trading volume has decreased slightly, if at all, and the most hardened file-traders easily figured out ways to avoid detection by the RIAA. The industry, though, is convinced that the lawsuits have contributed to a recent uptick in CD sales.

But if, in the long run, 2003 is seen as a turning point in the music business -- a year that marked the decline of illegal trading and the emergence of legal online music distribution -- the shift will probably be thanks to a man named Steve Jobs rather than the RIAA's lawsuits. In April, Jobs, the visionary CEO of Apple, unveiled his iTunes Music Store, which did away with the Byzantine subscription music plans the industry had previously touted, in favor of a practical, common-sense approach to selling music online: The customer gets to do what she wants with the songs she buys. (At first the store was available just for Macs; it's now on Windows, too.)

iTunes has been a phenomenal success for Apple. It's already sold 25 million songs through the service, and the company expects to sell 100 million tracks by April. There now seems to be no question that Apple's service -- or one of the many similar rival services, such as the new Napster -- will become one of the main ways people get their music in the decades to come. "Our position, from the beginning, was that 80 percent of the people stealing music online don't really want to be thieves," Jobs told Rolling Stone magazine in December. "But that it is such a compelling way to get music: It's instant gratification. You don't have to go to the record store; the music's already digitized, so you don't have to rip the CD. It's so compelling that people are willing to become thieves to do it ... We said: We don't see how you convince people to stop being thieves, unless you can offer them a carrot -- not just a stick. And the carrot is: We're gonna offer you a better experience ... and it's only gonna cost you a dollar a song."

Genes Inc.

Fears that tinkering with our genes may make our descendents better looking and smarter, but less human were a bit overshadowed this year by all the happy hoopla around the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA. In some ways, however, that strange-new-world future of the enhanced human race has already arrived. In some countries, such as Estonia, the marketing of genetic information has already become a reality -- and even a source of nationalistic pride.

A backlash continues to brew in the area of genetically modified crops, of which the United States has historically been more accepting than Europeans. But those hopes that you could bring a dead pet back from the grave by cloning it, sometime in the not too distant future, looked somewhat more illusory, after a litter of cloned pigs at Texas A&M turned out to have very different personalities.

President Bush's war against nature

In 2003, the Bush administration's assault on the environment became so pervasive and virulent as to be almost comic. Programs to weaken regulations, increase pollution, and permit more logging went by the Orwellian names "Clear Skies" and "Healthy Forests."

On the 30th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, the feds announced plans to weaken rules on the importation of endangered species to the United States by circuses and hunters. And it was revealed that administration officials covered up the toxic fallout in New York City from 9/11. As for that pesky problem global warming, the feds prescribed a stiff dose of further study, thanks.

The Bush administration took industry's side at every turn, even backing carmakers in their battle against the state of California. It has been up to the states to rebel when the relaxing of green regulations truly goes too far.

On one occasion, when federal officials were invited to explain their "green" policies, they were missing in action, prompting California's attorney general Bill Lockyer to quip: "They're getting a little thin-skinned about trying to defend their environmental record, because it's essentially indefensible."

SCO attacks Linux

In the world of open-source software, Microsoft has always been public enemy No. 1 -- but this year the SCO Group, a small firm in Utah, seems to have dethroned Bill Gates. SCO believes that Linux is illegal. The company, which owns all rights to the original Unix source code, says that the celebrated open-source operating system is nothing but "an unauthorized derivative of Unix." In March, the company sued IBM -- a longtime partner of SCO -- for billions, alleging that the firm had stolen SCO's property and stuffed it into Linux.

The case quickly achieved trial-of-the-century status among Linux devotees. Because the company has been slow to reveal the specific code that it says IBM introduced into Linux, SCO's claims have been widely dismissed by most experts. But fans of open-source software also appreciate the high stakes involved in the case -- SCO plans to argue that the General Public License, or GPL, the revered free software license that makes Linux possible, is invalid, an argument that, if accepted by the courts, could upturn the entire open-source movement.

But even if SCO doesn't manage to invalidate the GPL, its attacks could very well contribute to a climate of fear surrounding Linux -- a possibility that will surely be savored by the folks in Redmond.

Hydrogen to the rescue?

In 2003 the Bush administration bet that hydrogen will become what a new generation of cleaner fuel-cell-powered cars will run on, announcing a $1.2 billion Freedom Fuel initiative in January.

Excitement over the coming "hydrogen economy" triggered a wave of technological innovation and investment, with start-ups competing to create the next-generation fuel-cell engines and a fuel infrastructure to power cars, trucks, buses and even boats. The goal: use technology to make the United States less dependent on foreign oil, and ease greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.

But with war protesters against the invasion of Iraq adopting the mantra "no blood for oil," and climatologists growing ever more urgent in their concerns about climate change, some environmental groups saw the focus on a coming hydrogen economy -- which always seems to remain 10 or 20 years away -- as an industry-giveaway ploy to avoid regulating automakers and polluting industries right now. Even China, in its first such attempt at regulation, adopted stricter fuel-economy standards than the United States.

Some boosters of a hydrogen future also wonder where all that hydrogen is going to come from. But those too impatient to wait for technology to solve the problem in a few decades made their own biodiesel, or bought a hybrid-electric car.

Anita Borg

The technology industry lost its most prominent, respected and effective advocate for women in 2003: technologist Anita Borg.

Borg, who died of brain cancer at age 54 on April 6, founded the Institute for Women and Technology as well as the Systers mailing list, where a generation of women in computer science met and learned from each other online.

Remembered by her peers as "not just another nerdy white guy," Borg set her sights beyond merely increasing diversity among engineers. She strove to teach geeks, like her, how to take seriously the innovative ideas of the "nontechnical."

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

MORE FROM Farhad Manjoo

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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